Christmas Around the World: A Look at 6 Different Countries’ Traditions — From Festivities to Secrecy

December 26, 2017 by  
Filed under In The News

 

By Stoyan Zaimov 

Christmas is celebrated by Christians in different ways around the world — some honor the birth of Jesus Christ on different dates; some observe the holiday by featuring giant Christmas trees, markets, and Nativity plays; while others are forced to celebrate in the deep secrecy under the most oppressive regimes.

It remains one of the holiest of days for believers, marking the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, and is a day for faith and family, bringing hope to believers in many corners of the globe where they might not have much cause to celebrate otherwise.

 Some traditions, such as the elaborately ornamented Nativity scenes in Italy, go back 800 years, while in other places, like in Russia, Christians have only been able to resume their Christmas celebrations in recent decades after nearly a century of being suppressed.

Here are six countries where Christians mark Christmas in different ways, including the  town of Jesus’ birth:

 

1. Egypt

 

(PHOTO: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY)Egyptian Muslims and Christians celebrate Coptic Christmas eve mass, at Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 6, 2013.

 

Coptic Christians in Egypt make up only a minority, around 10 percent of the population, but have longstanding Christmas traditions, such as the Feast of the Nativity.

The Copts observe the month of “Kiahk,” starting from Nov. 25 through Jan. 6, where they fast and eat a vegan diet, not eating anything made from animals.

As Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, explains, 40 of the 43 days of the Advent fast signify the period of time that Moses waited to receive the Word of God in the form of the Ten Commandments.

The other three days commemorate the number of days Egyptian Christians fasted for the miraculous moving of Muqattam mountain over 1,000 years ago.

Throughout the month of Kiahk, all liturgical and worship hymns lead up to the birth of Christ.

Like other Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Christmas Day for Copts falls on Jan. 7, with believers going to church for a special liturgy on Coptic Christmas Eve, which is midnight on Jan. 6.

“Family and friends congregate around the Eucharist, the most tangible manifestation of our Lord’s sacrifice to, and love for, mankind to fully appreciate and receive the Word Himself,” Angaelos explains.

“The liturgical service is then followed by a fellowship meal where the faithful break their fast and continue to rejoice in the Nativity in a spirit of joy and love.”

 

2. Italy

(PHOTO: REUTERS)A traditional Italian nativity scene in this undated photo.

Italy begins its Christmas season with the religious Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, which is also a national holiday where Catholics celebrate the conception of Mary.

The Castel Sant’Angelo museum in Rome fires off a cannon to mark the start of festivities, which includes parades, bonfires and fireworks.

Nativity Scenes, which are used in many Western countries and worldwide as representations of Jesus’ birth, are especially popular in cities like Naples. The tradition of the crib scene is believed to have originated in the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi asked a local villager to create a manger to help re-enact the Nativity. It has played a huge role in Italian Christmas art and decorations ever since.

The Vatican hosts a full Advent and Christmas calendar, lighting its Christmas tree early on in December, with a midnight Mass at in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve serving as one of the highlights.

After delivering the homily on the meaning of Christmas on Christmas Eve, the pope then delivers his annual Christmas message on Christmas Day at noon, sending out his traditional blessing to Rome and the world.

3. Mexico

(SCREENCAP: YOUTUBE/CASALASMARGARITAS)One of the Mexican Christmas celebrations are “Las Posadas” and “Patorelas” seen here performed by children in a video posted December 15, 2011.

Mexican Christmas celebrations are often centered around Las Posadas, with nine days of observance counted down from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve.

The tradition, which is also popular elsewhere in Latin America, is based on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for a place to stay before the birth of Jesus, with “posada” meaning “inn” or “shelter” in Spanish.

The Posadas celebrations include Christmas carols, with people acting out the roles of Mary and Joseph in different homes each night during the nine days.

The get-togethers include Bible reading and prayer, with guests breaking pinatas and children given candy.

In Mexico the holiday continues through Jan. 6, marking El Dia de los Reyes, the day of the kings or the wise men, which is when children receive their gifts.

4. Russia

 

(PHOTO: REUTERS/ALEKSEY DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN)Russian President Vladimir Putin (5th L) and believers attend the Orthodox Christmas service at a local church in the settlement of Turginovo in Tver region, Russia, January 7, 2016. Most Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar on January 7, two weeks after most western Christian churches that abide by the Gregorian calendar.

 

In accordance with the Julian calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. While the religious holiday is not as popular as New Year’s Eve celebrations, it is growing in a country where it was banned for most of the 20th century due to Communism.

Two important meals are observed by practicing Orthodox Christians, one on Christmas Eve, which consists of 12 meatless dishes, representing the 12 apostles.

“Kutya is a concoction of grains and poppy seeds sweetened with honey, which serves as one of the main dishes of the Christmas feast. Vegetarian-style borsch or solyanka, a salty stew, may also be served along with salads, sauerkraut, dried fruit, potatoes, and beans,” Tripsavvy.com explains.

Midnight mass at Christmas Eve is attended by prominent figures, including President Vladimir Putin in recent years.

Meat is allowed to be consumed during the big Christmas Day celebrations, including side dishes such as aspic, stuffed pies, and various deserts.

5. North Korea

(PHOTO: REUTERS/DAMIR SAGOLJ)A North Korean soldier guards the gate on banks of the Yalu River, north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 1, 2017.

Although in total secrecy, Christians find a way to mark the birth of Christ even in North Korea, the country that has been ranked as the most oppressive place for believers in the world for 15 straight years by major watchdog groups, such as Open Doors USA.

As South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported in December, leader Kim Jong Un has prohibited any gatherings involving singing or alcohol in a measure to ban anything that could be suggestive of celebration.

Open Doors explained that despite the heavy oppression and careful monitoring by authorities, in a country where simply owning a Bible could get one sent to a prison camp, Christians do manage to gather and celebrate Christmas in remote areas.

“Christmas is mainly celebrated in the heart of the Christian,” said  Brother Simon, who coordinates the work of Open Doors in North Korea, in 2007.

“Only if the whole family has turned to Christ is it possible to have something like a real gathering. For fear of retribution it is necessary to keep your faith hidden from the neighbors.”

On rare occasions, as many as 60 or 70 North Koreans may gather together at secret locations in the mountains for service, the watchdog group added.

6. Bethlehem, Israel

(PHOTO: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)A general view shows Manger Square, near the Church of Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, during Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 24, 2013.

Some of the biggest Christmas celebrations fittingly take place in the Israeli town of Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus was born.

In past years the big influx of tourists to the town has brought in over 100,000 people to mark the birth of Christ.

Multiple services and processions are led by various Christian denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Armenian and others. The town’s streets are strung with Christmas lights, with Christmas plays, markets and trees adding festivity to the scene.

The main processions pass through the world-famous Basilica of the Nativity, which is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth.

As Abu Batrous Naameh, a priest from the Syrian Orthodox Church, said last year, “celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem allows one not only to reconnect to the time of the birth of Jesus, but also the place.”

“We consider this day as if it were the same day, 2016 years ago, and remember Jesus, who sacrificed himself,” Naameh said, according to Jerusalem Post, adding that “the new year is an opportunity to make a pledge for peace with all people around the world and in the Holy Land.”